This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
The summer of 1987 changed my world.
Mum finally got the guts to kick Dad out, I pashed Katie Ryan behind the canteen one Tuesday at lunch, and Tinnie had his head bashed in by an armed secret agent during the second innings of the Australia-New Zealand test match.
It began like any other December morning. The heat pressed down thickly as I battled the overgrown grass, my shirt clinging to my sweat-stained skin.
"Mike. Hey! Mike!"
The sound of my name fought through the roar of the lawnmower. I pulled the throttle and turned to see Tinnie hanging over the splintered wooden fence, waving a couple of cans at me.
"Hey, Ed. What's up?" We never called Tinnie that to his face. He might be mad as a cut snake, but he was still decent enough. In all the time he'd lived next door we'd never had any problems, despite his constant twitchy insistence that he was being watched. Chris had been the one to coin the name at my 15th birthday party, when Tinnie wheeled an old shop mannequin named Effie out into his yard and announced that it was a decoy to fool the surveillance.
"That one is a tinfoil-hat nutjob. You're going to get stabbed to death," Chris had declared. I'd shrugged and said nothing, but the label had stuck.
Tinnie gestured toward the now-silent lawnmower. "It's a shit of a day to be doing that. Wanna take a break, cool off?"
I glanced toward the kitchen window before nodding. Tinnie held out a can to me and I took it, quickly downing several mouthfuls. Eventually Tinnie cleared his throat and spoke in a low voice.
"Listen, Mike. You're a good kid." He smiled anxiously. "Something's happened. They know." His eyes slid toward the street, darted back to me. "Do you reckon you can help me out? Let me know if you see anyone hanging around?"
"Sure, no worries." I said, sucking at the last few drops caught in the rim of my can.
"Thanks." He relaxed slightly. "I've got the cricket on if you want to come over and watch. Plenty more cold ones in the fridge as well."
I glanced at the window again. Mum hated me talking to Tinnie ever since that misunderstanding with Gizmo and the rat bait. And if I was being honest, even if I could come up with a decent excuse, Tinnie's house was creepy as hell. It was always dim and shadowy, the curtains closed tightly against any dangerous hint of light.
I shrugged apologetically. "Yeah, I can't today. Mum wants all this mowed before the storm comes."
We talked for a few more minutes before he headed inside. I kept working, the conversation - and my promise - quickly left behind in the hypnotic push, pull, turn, of the mowing.
It was far from the first time that Tinnie had approached me, wild-eyed, seeking my help to protect him from The Agents.
Maybe that was why it took me so long to register the screaming.
At first all I could hear was the sound of raised voices. I cut power to the lawnmower again and stood motionless, straining to make out what was being said.
"...believe you! No!" That was Tinnie, all belligerence and bluster. Loud crashing noises and more incoherent yelling followed.
"...hid for so long... thought... dead!" An unknown male voice.
The screen door flew open, metal banging harshly against the bricks as Tinnie stumbled down the stairs. He regained his footing and dashed across the backyard, casting a fearful look over his shoulder. A moment later a man with close-cropped dark hair shot out of the house in pursuit.
"Stop!" He shouted, clutching one hand to a jagged cut on his forehead, blood welling between his fingers and dripping down the side of his face. He slowed to a stop and held out his other hand toward Tinnie in a placating gesture. "Please! I just want to talk!"
Tinnie stopped and turned, breathing hard. After a moment he laughed, a high, wild sound edged with panic. "No. No! You don't get me that easy. Who sent you?" He started edging backwards again. "How did you find-"
I saw the danger and cried out a warning. "Tinnie! Stop!"
The agent's head whipped toward me and Tinnie's eyes widened in confusion, but I was too slow, too late, and I watched in helpless horror as Tinnie backed straight into Effie and they both went down in a tangle of limbs.
The agent was across the yard in an instant. Tinnie kicked out with one leg and the agent went sprawling, then there was nothing but wordless grunts and the sound of fists hitting flesh as they fought. I sprinted to the fence and hoisted myself over. Tinnie had somehow gained the upper hand and was straddling the agent, teeth bared in a feral grimace as his fingers tightened around the other man's neck. The agent was kicking feebly and gasping desperately for air, then one scrabbling hand found Effie's dismembered arm and he brought it up hard against Tinnie's head with a loud, wet crack.
After that things get cloudy. I remember the shrill sound of screaming, eventually realising it was coming from me. Mum pulling me by the arm shouting something I couldn't understand. The hypnotic sight of our house as flashing lights painted it in bright colours.
I still remember the smell, the sharp tang of new-cut grass mixed with the heavy scent of copper.
Mostly, though, I remember the agent.
I remember him sitting, blood streaking his face and smeared up his arms, Tinnie cradled in his lap as he sobbed.
"Dad... I'm so sorry... please... Dad... don't do this...".
The police handcuffing him. The bright bursts of camera flashes.
The weight of guilt.
I'd tried to do a good thing. Everyone should have their family with them for the holidays.